My sister-in-law Flic has a part-time gig at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), so we were lucky enough to score a bait to last night’s opening of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, ‘Revolutions – Forms that Turn.’ And we weren’t the only ones! I don’t think I’ve ever seen the gallery so packed. When we arrived, the wall of people standing between us and the bar was absolutely impenetrable. This made me tetchy. What is wrong with me that I can’t stand in a roomful of people with full glasses without virtually panicking until I have a glass of my own?? Within seconds of crossing the threshold, I’d stopped listening to the person speaking (then again, we arrived in time to catch the last of the most boring speech of all time. A lady whose name escapes me now was speaking in a crushing monotone that made not having a drink to knock back all the more a Total Crisis Situation), and started tracking the best route to the bar. It seemed a matter of some urgency that I get a glass in my hand.
Eventually I got one. And I swiped about eight mini-quiches and party pies, too, with such deft skill that the waiters started recognising me from across the vast room. After being stuck in the sweaty middle for a while, eventually we pushed through the arty throng – most people seemed to be earnestly discussing whether or not they’d successfully scored an invite to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) party – to the James Angus sculpture, Bugatti Type 35, 2006. A fantastic, distorted, unstable, surreal structure robbed of its vehicular imperative, it is strangely beautiful, and certainly compelling visually and conceptually. On the ground floor, it’s the perfect introduction to the main exhibition downstairs, which I managed to get to once I successfully reclaimed my husband from the bewitching charms of the Dita Von Teese lookalike he found over by the Angus work. He says they were discussing sculpture, I say they were a heartbeat away from burlesque.
I’m just going to say it. The Biennale of Sydney’s AGNSW exhibition is far, far, far and away better than last time. Llew and I were both frustrated and disappointed in 2006. Bored, even. Which is not exactly what you’re after in what’s showcased as Australia’s main festival of contemporary art. There’s a new curator in da house, Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and if the AGNSW component of the Biennale is a taste of things to come, this time it’s really going to live up to expectations. And about time. Too often exhibitions of contemporary art in Sydney fundamentally fail to represent the best of the field. It often feels like we’re dished up the also-runs, the runt end of the litter, the way that we get out-of-season cast-offs from fashion houses in America and Europe.
It just doesn’t look like it’s happened this time, and I am ecstatic. I saw some great stuff last night, really exciting art. My favourite artist was probably Gianni Colombo, whose work I really loved. Outside the darkened room holding his Spazio Elastico (Elastic Space), 1967, installation is another of his kinetic works – sorry, it’s called something or other structure, I just can’t remember its title – that is so surprising and unassuming and fun. I think kinetic artists are quite cheeky by nature because they are all about confounding expectations and discreet sleights of hand.
The date of the Colombo works is something I noticed moving through the exhibition; whereas a lot of work at the last Biennale seemed mostly very current, this exhibit at AGNSW is dominated by work from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It’s contemporary art, sure, but it’s not post-2000. I know there is stuff at other sites that is right here, right now, super contemporary, but at the AGNSW at least it’s coherently retrospective as well as futuristic in tone, a kind of looking back (and simultaneously forward), which is surely what revolutions are all about. I can’t wait to see what they’ve got at the MCA and on Cockatoo Island and all the other sites around Sydney. The 16th Biennale of Sydney is open to the public 18 June – 7 September, so get out there rather than sitting on your arts!